An Engineering Background Put Heather Phillips in a Good Place To Be a Resource for Plant Operations

Heather Phillips was a consultant who helped design the water resource recovery facility in the Kansas community where she is now operations manager.

An Engineering Background Put Heather Phillips in a Good Place To Be a Resource for Plant Operations

Heather Phillips, Olathe wastewater operations manager

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Heather Phillips has seen the clean-water business from two key perspectives.

She started her career with a major engineering consultancy. A dozen years later, she made a move to the operations side and is happy with the decision. “I like that operators ask questions,” she says. “Operating a wastewater treatment plant is an art more than a science.

“There are a hundred ways you can operate a nutrient removal facility, and I like that the operators are always coming to me and saying, ‘What if we did this?’ and ‘What if we did that?’ We talk through the challenges of the day and work together as a team to solve problems. It’s never just one of us saying, ‘You have to do it this way.’”

Phillips, formerly a process engineer and plant designer with Black & Veatch, has been with the City of Olathe, Kansas, for eight years and since December 2015 has been wastewater operations manager, responsible for two treatment plants and a biosolids composting system. Her performance in that role earned her a 2019 William D. Hatfield Award from the Kansas Water Environment Association.

Designed for engineering?

Phillips was born in Ames, Iowa. When she was 5, her family moved to the Kansas City area, and she grew up in various suburbs (Olathe is one suburb, though she never lived there). “In school, I was always good at science and math,” she recalls. “I wanted to do some kind of engineering. I chose civil because it was a general type of engineering. A couple of classes on environmental engineering got me excited about working in an environmental field and eventually wastewater treatment.”

She earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Kansas State University. Between degrees, she worked in the Clean Cities intern program with the City of Manhattan, New York, promoting natural gas as an alternate fuel for fleet vehicles. After finishing her master’s degree, she joined the Black & Veatch Process Group.

She specialized in plant design using BioWin (EnviroSim) and GPS-X (Hydromantis Environmental Software Solutions) simulators, used for running wastewater process models to test operations under “what-if” scenarios, such as a major storm event or other upset. In her last five years with the Black & Veatch Kansas City office, she worked on a capital improvement program for the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District in Denver.

Appeal of operations

“I flew back and forth quite a bit, working closely with operators,” Phillips says. “That’s where I decided I enjoyed working in the field more than doing designs.” She had also worked on the design for the new Olathe treatment plant and was training staff members there. “A process engineer position with the city became available. I was ready to get back into operations again because the Denver project had ended. I saw an opportunity to start up a plant I helped design.”

She made the move in October 2012. Olathe’s Cedar Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility (7.75 mgd design, 4 mgd average) came online that same year. It uses a process developed by biological nutrient removal pioneer James Barnard and colleague Ed Kobylinski. “I helped with the process modeling and designed the aeration system,” says Phillips, who along with her engineering credentials holds Kansas Class IV (highest) wastewater operator certification.

The city also operates an older trickling filter plant (3.2 mgd design, 1.5 mgd average). Anaerobically digested sludge from that plant is converted in a windrow process into Class A compost that’s used for the city’s parks and soccer fields.

Removing nutrients

The Cedar Creek facility is unique in having a mixed liquor fermenter limit of 1.0 mg/L and can also enhance denitrification. After the head>span class="s3">works with bar screens (Vulcan Industries) and a HeadCell grit removal system (Hydro International), the wastewater enters a five-stage Bardenpho process.

The anaerobic and anoxic zones include mixers (Flygt - a Xylem Brand). In the aerobic zone, air is provided by Siemens Industry blowers by way of membrane fine-bubble diffusers (Sanitaire - a Xylem Brand). Mixers in that zone (also Flygt) help keep the mixed liquor in suspension so that the air can be turned down to avoid an excess of oxygen at the end of the basin.

At the end of the anaerobic zone, the mixed liquor is allowed to settle. “From the bottom of that zone, we pump about 10% of the plant flow into the fermenter,” Phillips says. “It’s a thickened mixed liquor similar to return activated sludge.”

The fermenter contents are mixed for a few minutes several times per day; overall retention time is about 14 hours. “We’re producing acetic and propionic acids, but we’re not letting the process go all the way to methane,” Phillips says. “The acetic and propionic acids become food sources for the phosphorus-accumulating organisms and the denitrifiers in the basins.

“We can select whether to put the fermenter output into the front of the anaerobic zone to enhance phosphorus removal or into the first anoxic zone to help with denitrification. We have operated both ways.” Typical effluent phosphorus is 0.5 to 1.0 mg/L; total nitrogen is typically below 8.0 mg/L versus a permit limit of 10 mg/L.

After final clarification and UV disinfection (TrojanUV3000), the effluent discharges to Cedar Creek, a Kansas River tributary. Waste activated sludge is dewatered on centrifuges (Andritz Separation) to 22%-25% solids and landfilled. “We are considering a biosolids evaluation in the next couple of years; we want to find a sustainable use for all of our solids,” Phillips says.

Making a transition

From consultant to operations is not a common career path, and on arrival in Olathe, Phillips experienced some of the natural tension between engineers and operators. “Coming in as an engineer was harder than coming in as the only woman,” she recalls. “The plant design turned out really well, but the operators like to rib me about some little things that didn’t work quite right. For example, the basin floors aren’t sloped so they’re harder to clean out. They like to blame the engineers for that.”

As for being a woman, “They wondered if I would be able to drag the fire hoses around. I don’t have to do that very often, but I showed them I could do it. I get out there and work with everybody, especially during storm events. It’s a team effort. They are a really good group of people. It’s sort of a family environment, and it’s a lot of fun.”

A key challenge for Phillips is dealing with turnover and getting new operators trained up. Operators frequently leave for better pay in the private sector; in some cases they move to the fire department or other jobs within the city.

The right stuff

For Phillips, staffing and training are about hiring carefully. “We’ve brought in people who had experience and people who didn’t,” she says. “A lot of times it’s easier to bring in someone fresh out of high school who has zero training in wastewater, as long as they have a good attitude and work ethic and really believe in what they’re doing. 

“In the city, we have a leadership philosophy that everybody applies. It talks a lot about passion, collaboration and leadership development. We use that as the backbone in our day-to-day work. But hiring the right people is critical. Even if they only stay three or four years, if they have a good attitude and a hard work ethic, that helps our team come together and get the job done.

“All of our operators have some kind of passion for the outdoors and fishing or hunting. When they come to work and see that they’re doing something to help the environment and public health, that’s a common thread we see with folks who stay around for a while.”

For recruiting, Olathe team members attend career fairs and talk up the profession when giving facility tours to high school and college students. “When people come on site and see what the job really is, it interests a lot of them,” Phillips says.

Up the ladder

People coming on board have a defined career track, from operator I to operator II to control operator — a position that requires Class IV certification and two to three years of experience. “In that role you’re not a supervisor of people, but you’re basically in control of the plant,” Phillips says. “We have a career progression for each step with a pay increase. In addition, with each step up in certification, they get a little more on their paycheck.”

Operations staff members are Richard Jones and Anthony Kurkowski, wastewater operations superintendents; Les Newton and Patrick Karashin, control operators; Carl Cook and Jared Schultz, process operator II; and DeAndre Williams, Anthony Ryan, Jose Mora-Calvo and Jonathon Chesbro, process operator I.

Paul Bixel is environmental compliance manager in charge of industrial pretreatment and FOG, Steven McNolty II is maintenance manager for asset management, and DeWayne McAllister manages the city’s certified laboratory.

The city pays operators for the Sacramento courses, provides annual in-house training and encourages and pays for attendance at events such as KWEA conferences and operator schools offered by the state Department of Health and Environment.

Always improving

The training and support pay off in teams that are engaged in day-to-day work and are on the lookout for ways to improve the process. “When we first brought the fermenter online, we had some short-circuiting issues,” Phillips says. “Our maintenance staff came up with a design change. They built it themselves, and it has been running ever since with their modifications.”

That team includes Bart Rehagen, maintenance operations manager; Mark Higgs, maintenance superintendent; and Floyd Koder, instrument and controls supervisor.

The city recently received a new permit that replaces concentration limits for effluent nitrogen and phosphorus with total maximum daily limits (in pounds). Meanwhile, two aging oxidation ditches that handle about 25% of Cedar Creek’s flow are likely to be phased out. An empty field next to the two nutrient removal trains has room for two more identical units.

“The design is pretty much done,” Phillips says. “When those trains are built, the oxidation ditches will be demolished and digesters will be put in. That is probably more than 10 years in the future.”

Many rewards

It all adds up to job satisfaction for Phillips, who observes, “This is a great industry. There is so much potential and so much job security. It’s only going to get more challenging as regulatory limits get stricter. That’s part of the fun of it — to see construction projects and learn new processes as they come online.”

She credits much of her success to having good mentors, including Barnard at Black & Veatch, “who was a huge influence on my career,” and Joe Foster, a former Olathe operator. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without great mentor operators and engineers. If you surround yourself with good people and you’re not afraid to ask questions, that will make you a good operator.”  


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